Our theme for this Advent is, "We Need a Savior."
Advent is that time of year when we seek to be particularly aware of our deepest longings and the world's deepest need. We give expression to our hopes and fears, but also to the hugeness and intractability of problems facing us, both personally and the world situation - things beyond our ability to fix by our own ways. That was last Sunday's focus, "O Come, Emmanuel."
Though we acknowledge our need and the world's need for a Savior, are we just giving lip-service, or are we truly seeking? If so, where are we looking? That is today's theme.
Our two texts for today are not generally Advent texts. They often show up in Epiphany, following the birth. Both, however, are texts of seeking.
When Matthew puts together the story of the Magi, he certainly had in mind the prophecy from Isaiah 60. "For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the people; but the Lord will arise upon you, and God's glory will appear over you. Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn." Matthew is saying that is exactly what is happening when these kings from the east come calling at Jerusalem. In other words, the coming of the Messiah has worldly significance.
Of course these kings come to Jerusalem, the center of power in the Palestinian part of the Roman Empire, as well as the center of power for Judaism, from which the Messiah was to come. Herod, like most politicians, really knows very little about the Bible, so he summons his biblical scholars. Their job is to find the texts that flatter the king. They must have seized upon Isaiah 60, the proof of which was right outside the palace with a caravan of foreigners coming to pay homage to the king. However, the truth of the text wins out. They find the passage that says it is Bethlehem into which the Savior will be born.
Bethlehem is only nine miles from Jerusalem, but it is another world altogether. What we have, as Old Testament professor Walter Brueggemann points out, are two alternative ways of seeing God among us. Isaiah 60 says that such power will come through the powerful, through the ways of Herod - tyranny and the slaughter of innocence. But Bethlehem, a shabby place, actually is where it really happens. A baby lying in a feed trough is quite a different way to get things done. I am reminded that Paul Ricoeur stated that what needs to be awakened in us is a "second na´vetÚ." How counter that runs to our terror-stricken world's demand to be anything but na´ve. Though the Magi had originally looked in the wrong place, Jerusalem, they were able to change focus. They were able to see what God was doing in a way they could not originally imagine. So after they left their precious gifts in this drafty little abode (with totally inadequate security, by the way) they had the good sense not to be manipulated by Herod, the pretender to the throne. So they went home by another way. No doubt, that is why they have ever since been called "Wise Men."
Whereas the Wise Men's seeking takes them on a journey, Simeon and Anna's seeking makes them stay put in order to remaining faithful. Simeon and Anna's years of devotion and prayer make them credible witnesses to what God was doing. They had been steeped in Scripture and prayer. Plus, they have been around the block a few times. They were not taken in by all the latest fads and messianic claims that their experience and a life-time of study and prayer told them are not real saviors. They were able to confirm for this young, impressionable couple, contrary to all appearances and expectation, they had it right. Isn't it often the role of the elders, the devoted, to see through the false claims, to see beyond popular expectations and confirm what truly saves? They seek by staying put, being there in the pew in worship, prayer, and in sharing with the community?
A note I received from one of our elders this week, in reflecting on our theme for Advent, reminded me that we don't need A savior; we need The Savior, Jesus Christ. And that is absolutely right. All we have to do is look around and it is clear that people feel a desperate need for A savior. (And I dare say they, we, are looking for one a whole lot easier to follow than THE Savior.) Look at all the things we seek to free us, to make us feel better, to "save" us from ourselves and others, from our past, or our fear of the future. We seek salvation in drugs and alcohol to dull the pain, or alter our reality. We seek salvation from the uncertainty of the future by amassing wealth, sometimes at the expense of charity to others and sanity for ourselves. We seek salvation from self-doubt or insecurity through seeking power over others or crediting ourselves for our places of privilege.
It is clear that many are seeking a savior on the political front. The more frightening things get, the more they seem out of control, the more people seek "A" savior. In many places those "saviors" seem to me quite the opposite of The Savior. Nationally, we seek salvation in threat, bombs, shock and awe, as in the invasion of Iraq, only to fuel the incendiary and manipulative rationale and evil of those like ISIS who are seen as a savior by many radicalized young Muslims, who seek salvation from what they see as the devil of western imperialism.
Seeing that we are vulnerable, we seek a savior. As I said, on the political front, many are seeking a savior in politicians and those running for office who express the most extreme, prejudiced, repressive, and incendiary positions. I think that only plays into the hands of terrorists, like the two in the most recent shootings in San Bernardino - seeking to lure us into acting even more repressively toward all Muslims and fulfilling the narrative that all Muslims are hated and unwelcome.
Lord, we do need a savior! But we believe that the Savior, not just our Savior, but the savior of the world has come, in Jesus Christ. Yes, we sing, "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel," calling on God to be manifest, to intervene in this hash we have made of things. I don't believe that means passive waiting for a miraculous all-encompassing divine intervention, however. It does NOT mean holding out simply for a second coming. That is not what it means to seek Immanuel, The Savior.
What Advent really is, is that desperately needed reminder that The Savior has come, that we are not desolate. It is the reminder of what to look for, what truly saves and what does not. It directs us where to look. We believe that the way of Christ is the way of salvation for us personally and for this, God's world. We believe that Christ is the Savior of the world.
Now, for many years in the church, and for much of the church, still, to say that Christ was the Savior of the world meant that salvation came by converting everyone to Christianity. If they were not, or did not become Christian, they were damned and could be killed, ignored, or oppressed. But all that does is make God as small as I am. It limits God to the way I understand and see God, rather than being the true God that can work in any faith expression God chooses. True faith is NOT legitimized because everyone is doing it, or because there is no other possible way. It is true faith, regardless of what others do or believe, and regardless of what other ways God may choose to act in this world. It is how we primarily see God working. It is what we have committed ourselves to.
So an exclusive claim is NOT what Christ as Savior, even Savior of the world means for me. For one, it is all too clear that we can worship Christ and be very unChristlike! We demonstrate that in our own lives, in the life of our community and country. Clearly the history of Christianity has demonstrated that as well. Look at the horrors that have been done in Christ's name. Unfortunately, to "worship" Christ doesn't necessarily mean to follow him or to be in the world like him! I believe it was one of the early church fathers that said something like, "We tried to get rid of Jesus first by crucifying him, then by worshiping him!"
For me, Christ as Savior means that Jesus' way is the way of salvation. It means that in Christ, the Spirit of Christ, God is moving among us, seeking that just and peaceable realm.
That is the seeking of Advent - looking for the true Savior, seeking to follow the way that Christ sought to bring about God's reign. I will admit many other ways are much more tempting. They come more naturally to us, like an eye for an eye, but they don't seem to work any better now than they did in Jesus' day - worse, because we have far more deadly weapons. As William Sloan Coffin put it, "The world is too dangerous for anything but truth, and too small for anything but love."
The world, or at least the place in the world where Jesus entered, was a violent, scary, and oppressive place. What were the options for making one's way in that world? What provided the hope of salvation?
There were those who sought salvation by declaring themselves the savior. That was Rome. They declared that their societal structure, their earthly god, Caesar, who was called, "Lord and Savior," was the way of salvation. And it worked, for a while, if you were of the privileged citizen class and kissed up to Caesar. (One always has to ask, "For whom?")
There were those who sought salvation in "accommodation," like the tax collectors. They were in league with the occupiers, working the system to their own advantage, making out for themselves at the expense of their neighbors.
There were those, like the Essene's who sought escape from this world in religious community and devotion. They put their whole emphasis on God's imminent coming out of the heavens to destroy the world's evil doers, and make heaven on earth in a flash.
There was the way of the religious establishment that sought salvation in the law that would "get them over" to the next life. They had given up on this world as a place of God's work. They sought legitimacy in an exclusive claim - that God only worked through them and favored only those who believed and behaved like them. God was God only of the righteous, the religious, and the lucky, not of the Gentile, the leper, or those diseased in mind or body.
Others sought salvation in terrorism. They were the Zealots, many of them religious fanatics, who sought the overthrow of the world dominant power through violence and guerilla tactics.
None of those was the way of the Savior we follow. We follow the Savior who:
- Countered hatred with love and prayer for one's enemies.
- Resisted the state's tactic of threat and intimidation by refusing to act out of fear.
- Befriended the outcast and marginalized, showed the tax-collector a better way, and upheld the Samaritan.
- Refused the exclusive religious claim of Jerusalem, and the Temple as the only legitimate worship of God.
- Called the merciful and the peacemaker's blessed.
- Who died rather than succumb to the tactics of the State, the religious exclusivists, the terrorists, or the escapists, and thereby exposed the impotency of all of them.
That is The Savior we follow. That is the Savior born, not in Rome, or Jerusalem, but nine miles south, in the dusty little town of Bethlehem.
May we be among their number.